A recent conversation with an Edinburgh taxi driver, who happened to be a massive Rolling Stones fan, ended with him calling ‘Gimme Shelter’ the “best fucking song ever written”. He’s probably not alone in that opinion – the song comes first on the Stones 1969 album Let it Bleed, and is one of the most popular songs of the decade. Scorcese has used it in 3 different films – and it is a heavily covered single.
The song has a dark theme – set to the backdrop of the West in the late 1960s. It got heavy airtime with American soldiers in Vietnam, and Jagger often brings the war up when asked about the track. This is unsurprising – given the obvious imagery of storms and fire. It also takes inspiration from the mass social unrest of 1960s America – with anger at the war and the government, on top of the civil rights struggles that define the decade. Steven Davis, band biographer, says that “no rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.”
The song itself also has a dark story. The pinnacle of the song is reached when Merry Clayton, the guest female vocalist the Stones hired, sings her final part. The band had no plans to get a woman to sing the final part – and only decided on the day. That decision was key in the production of a song that has come to symbolise that dark era of Western history The lyric – “Rape, Murder, It’s just a shot away” is the most violent the song gets, and Clayton’s voice brings an intensity unachievable by Jagger’s. That lyric is full of contextual fury – with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy (little brother of John and 1968 Democratic presidential hopeful) and Dr K ing fresh in the mind of the public. Her vocal is high in pitch and high in the mix – but the story of her collaboration isn’t a wholly happy one.
Clayton grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans. In her career, she worked with Elvis, the Supremes, Ray Charles, and many others – she can be heard backing “Sweet Home Alabama” for instance. However, as said, her participation in the track was a chance occurrence. The Stones decided late they wanted a female vocalist for the last part – and the music producer in the studio they were recording at was friends with Clayton. She was in bed at midnight when she was asked to come in and record a part – she had never heard of the band, but her husband informed her of their stardom. Jagger recalls her arriving with hair curlers in. She did her takes, and was allowed to go home in the early hours of the morning. The takes she gave were intense and powerful, with her voice cracking twice (in tune) on the take eventually used (after the second voice crack, Jagger can be heard whooping in the background – at 3:02 into the track). The pregnant Clayton miscarried later that morning.
For years, she couldn’t bear to listen to the song – blaming the exertion required for her performance on her miscarriage. She had been dragged out of bed, after midnight, to sing a violent and wearing vocal part, and felt she had paid a tragic price in the process. However, as she grew older, she made her peace with the song – and has come to enjoy singing it – releasing her own cover years later. Her part in the song is legendary, and rarely matched onstage by the session vocalists the band tour with (Lisa Fischer perhaps being the obvious exception). The spontaneity of the recording is therefore bittersweet – what may or may not have brought on a tragic moment in the life of a key participant is simultaneously regarded by that participant as a career highlight. The urge to be spontaneous is one that is less easily satisfied in the era of commercialised hit-making – but it must be kept alive. Ignoring spontaneity snuffs out creativity, and shows a lack of trust in the natural instincts. The story of Merry Clayton, and her eventual admiration of her own art, shows the power of the spontaneous to create lasting bonds between artists, listeners, and the art itself. Had Jagger and Richards never randomly decided to bring a guest in, the sound of the 1960s would be different. Let’s not forget this.